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Illinois outlasts Chattanooga to advance to round of 32

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Whew.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament First Round - Chattanooga vs Illinois Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Survive and advance. That’s the name of the game.

The Illini only led for 25 seconds on Friday night in the NCAA Tournament’s Round of 64, but they were ahead when it mattered most — at the final buzzer, 54-53.

Illinois’ All-American Kofi Cockburn gave Illinois its first lead with just 45 seconds left on a missed Coleman Hawkins free throw. The Mocs responded to take a one-point advantage on a pair of Malachi Smith free throws.

Alfonso Plummer drew a pair of his own with 12 seconds remaining and converted them both. Then, Hawkins blocked Chattanooga’s attempt on the ensuing possession and the Mocs’ rebound attempt didn’t fall, sending Illinois to the Round of 32 for the second time in as many years.

With their tournament lives on the line, the Illini put together arguably their worst half of the year. The Mocs quickly raced out to a 15-4 lead highlighted by a couple triples, and got help from everyone. Nine Mocs scored in the first half, and none of them had more than eight points.

Meanwhile, Illinois offensive display was downright atrocious. The Illini didn’t connect on a single three-point attempt in the first half, made just nine of 17 charity stripe tosses, and outside of their All-American, the rest of the team converted on only six of 15 field goal attempts. Despite all the offensive adversity, Illinois trailed by just four at the break.

A 10-0 run about halfway into the second frame was the spark the Illini needed, cutting the Chattanooga lead to just one — the closest the game had been since 0-0. From that point forward, neither team led by more than five and Illinois’ graduate transfer, Alfonso Plummer, stepped up big time.

The Utah import posted 13 points in the second half after going scoreless through the first 20 minutes. But none were more important than his free throws with a dozen seconds left, catapulting the Illini onto the next round by a final of 54-53.

STAT STUFFERS

  • Alfonso Plummer (ILL): 15 PTS, 2 REB
  • Kofi Cockburn (ILL): 17 PTS, 13 REB
  • Coleman Hawkins (ILL): 10 PTS, 8 REB
  • Darius Banks (UTC): 8 PTS, 13 REB
  • Malachi Smith (UTC): 12 PTS, 8 REB

SOUND SMART

YOU GOTTA SEE THIS

TWEET OF THE GAME

WHO’S NEXT

The Illini await the winner of No. 5 Houston and No. 12 UAB. Times and channel have yet to be set, but it will take place in Pittsburgh at some point on Sunday!